Exploring the Realms of Off-Curriculum Scientific Learning

Rhea (Medicine, Oxford University, u2 mentor) discusses her journey in scientific reading and exploration.

I’ve always found that, by supplementing my study of sciences through “super-curricular” activities, my curiosity and understanding of concepts has been greatly enhanced. The excitement of the fast-moving nature of science can easily be explored by, for example, reading articles about new research, watching documentaries, listening to podcasts and even chatting to others. There is such a wealth of resources at our feet open to discovery, that sometimes it is hard to know where to start! In this blog I’m going to talk through my journey of scientific reading during my secondary school education, which I believe played a pivotal role in inspiring my interest in the field of medicine, which I am currently studying at university.

When I was in year 9, on Thursdays, I used to have an hour to pass between the end of school and my hockey training. In the eyes of a 14 year old, the library seemed like a distant, abstract place. I certainly used to love reading teenage fantasy fiction books, but apart from exchanging fiction, the library seemed devoid of any other forms of entertainment. However, in this hour of idleness, I had little choice other than spending it in the library- and it was there that I discovered the wonders of scientific magazines.

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Having also begun studying biology, chemistry and physics separately that year, I grew to love the logic behind the sciences. Alongside this, through reading weekly editions of the New Scientist, which were being stocked in the library, I was able to see clear applications of scientific principles in the world around me- something which I found truly fascinating. In each edition, I would skim through and pick out articles on topics which I had covered in lessons. By reading about and being able to understand new research in this way, I added an exciting sparkle to my GCSE foundation, which both helped me remember what I was learning and inspired me to pursue the sciences into A levels.

The New Scientist articles vary in length and are written in a mix of newspaper and blog style; the prose is broken up by photos. They cover a variety of categories including technology, space, physics, health and the environment, so would be an interesting read for students looking to study subjects like the sciences, computer science, social sciences and geography, for example. I found reading the magazine increased my interest in experimental sciences and encouraged lateral thinking. Participating in the GCSE science olympiads, school team science challenges and the UKMT maths challenge offer further opportunities to develop this exciting, outside-the-box way of thinking. One experience I particularly recall enjoying was the British Physics Olympiad Experimental project- I used a variety of experimental techniques to investigate the different heights to which balls bounce, and then wrote up an experimental lab report analysing and explaining my results. I was awarded a Gold from this project and invited to the Royal Society to collect my award.

Outside of the New Scientist and science olympiads, I also stumbled across a website called “NRICH”. This website has a variety of scientific problems, often with real-life applications, on their website, which students can submit solutions for. Every month a couple of solutions are then published on their website. I found it really interesting to read different people’s approaches to questions - I found this actively broadened my way of thinking - and the questions are sorted into different difficulty levels, making this resource super accessible.

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I chose Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Maths for A levels, with the ambition of applying for medicine. For this reason, my reading became more streamlined to the field of medicine - alongside the New Scientist, I began reading the Student BMJ (British Medical Journey). This is similar to the original BMJ, but has articles catered to readers in sixth form and medical school. Articles range from new medical discoveries to tips on university applications and I found that reading monthly subscriptions, also available in the school library, was invaluable. I also discovered the Catalyst magazines, which have articles about “cutting-edge science”. Personally, I found these magazines more streamlined to the A level science content compared to The New Scientist, and I found that they provided a very accessible, stimulating read. It is also worth noting that most scientific journals have online resources for even further exploration, which can be accessed with the magazine subscription.

In my sixth form years, alongside magazines and the A level science olympiads, I also began reading scientific books - I found that this was invaluable, not only because I mentioned it on my personal statement, but also as it provided me with topics of interest to discuss at interviews. Many of the books I read were catered towards my interest in medicine, but I would still recommend these books to any student with a scientific interest.

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It can be hard to get into a factual book, as unlike magazines, they are longer and the prose can be more dense. I found it easier to ease myself in by reading autobiography-style and personal reflection books written by scientists or doctors. One of my favourites was “Do No Harm”, in which Henry Marsh, a neurosurgeon, reflects upon a variety of his experiences as a neurosurgeon in different countries. Other similarly accessible book which I would also recommend include Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat”, which describes different cases of neurology patients, and Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of all Maladies” which follows the history of attitudes and treatments towards cancer.

Oxbridge have essay competitions for year 12 students which I would strongly encourage looking into - writing an essay on a subject of interest will only serve to enhance curiosity. The Peterhouse College, Cambridge University, Kelvin essay competition is an example of a scientific essay competition- questions across a range of fields are posed which students can answer. Similarly, an EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) enables students to do research on any field they desire and write-up an essay about it. These offer an ideal opportunity for students to cite texts read and reflect upon them.

Having read these, I then branched into other more factual-style scientific books. As these reads generally take longer to understand and digest, I would recommend only reading books in areas which really interest you. For example, I was doing a physics project on MRIs of the brain and so read “The Human Brain” by Susan Greenfield, which I would recommend to students interested in biology, biophysics, medicine or even psychology. Another biological book I really enjoyed was “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins- this book is particularly interesting as it presents genetics in Dawkins’ own opinion and hence encourages the reader to form their own opinion.

Scientific journals, for example The Lancet and Nature are probably the most hard-core form of scientific reading which I first encountered when researching my EPQ and I am using increasingly more at university. I would recommend exploration of these journals (online) to pursue a particularly niche line of interest. They could even serve as discussion topics for interview preparation. Some journals have restricted access- it may be the case that some schools and more likely universities have subscription to these journals- but otherwise even just the journal abstract can serve as an exciting read!

Finally, another exciting source of scientific information in fields which may not be covered in the GCSE or A levels syllabuses are online courses- such as websites like FutureLearn. These offer courses in specific topics which may last a couple of weeks and include a variety of resources collated to enhance learning of the topic. These can compliment journals, books and magazines in exploring the advancing, fascinating world of science, alongside and beyond the science curricular syllabus.

u2 are also launching a range of exciting super-curriculum science offerings in September 2019, including a Science Journal Club for primary and secondary school female students as part of our new initiative, The Caroline Club, a Primary Science Fair and scientific programmes for Oxbridge entry mentored by our Oxbridge tutors.

Contact enquiries@u2tuition.com for further information.